A Well-Kept Secret Within a Well-Kept Secret
Hidden along North Carolina's Crystal Coast is a gem of a place called New Bern. Once the royal colonial capital of North Carolina and the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, it stands today as a charming little coastal town with a rich history and a lot of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. It's kind of a well-kept secret, the kind of place you have to know exists in order to know it exists. I visited New Bern once back around 1977 and recently decided it was time to reacquaint myself. My wife had a hankering for some beach time and, having explored much of Florida and hit all the South Carolina beaches from Folly to Myrtle, we thought we'd see what the Atlantic looked like a little farther north. Remembering New Bern from way back when, I thought it would be a perfect place from which to base our adventure.
Always on the lookout for good places to eat – particularly good Italian places – I stumbled upon another well-kept secret in the form of a little hideaway called Aperitivo. And I do mean “well-kept secret” because nobody in New Bern knows it's there. I only found it through an Internet search and then only because it popped up in conjunction with another restaurant.
Here's the deal: there is a well-established establishment called Lawson's Landing Cafe attached to the relatively new North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace. It's located on the banks of Lawson Creek near the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers at the point where South Front Street makes a big loop around Tryon Palace. Everybody knows where Lawson's Landing is and it comes generally well-recommended by the locals. However, what everybody apparently does not know is that when the History Center shutters at 5 pm, Lawson's Landing Cafe morphs into Aperitivo, a place where one can “enjoy the fine taste of Italy.” And a truly fine taste it is. Too bad nobody knows it's there.
It's my understanding that this is a relatively new concept restaurant. They tell me they have some ads running here and there. But not one single local I talked to knew the first thing about it. Nobody at the hotel had heard of it, nobody connected with the trolley tour we took knew about it, nobody in the shops we visited was aware of it. Even the docents at Tryon Palace near which grounds the restaurant is located didn't know it was there. Can you say “marketing fail?”
And that's an honest-to-goodness shame because the place is simply phenomenal. According to their website – and yes, they have one – “Aperitivo is dedicated to offering only the finest and freshest foods, along with the best wines from Italy.” It sounds like a lofty goal for such an unlikely place, but it's a goal Chef Ben Strange and his staff achieve admirably.
Don't come to Aperitivo with the idea that you're going to sit down and tuck in to a monstrous plate of spaghetti swimming in a mediocre red sauce. Chef Ben describes himself as “an Irish boy,” but he has the culinary soul of an Italian. The menu at Aperitivo consists of traditional Italian small plates and desserts. There are no heaping, steaming platters of quasi-Italian fare here. There are no red-checkered tablecloths and Dean Martin does not sing “That's Amore” in the background. (Although there's nothing wrong with him doing so. I like Dino.)
We were the first to arrive on a Thursday evening and were greeted by an extremely friendly and attentive host named Neal (hope the spelling is right) who conducted us to a very nice deuce by the window overlooking the waterfront. Our server was Mike and he was shadowed by a trainee whose name I did not catch, but about whom I will say more in a minute. I'll say this now; Mike's service was above reproach. I've had servers in far more upscale places who could have taken lessons from this young man. Little details were noted and appreciated. I hope his shadow was paying attention.
As for that shadow, I hope I had an impact on her as well. As you know if you've read anything I've written, I am on a one-man campaign to stamp out bad Italian in Italian-American eateries. And I overheard this girl putting an extraneous “r” in “mascarpone.” You know – “MARS-kuh-pone.” (Shudder.) So I called her over, corrected her pronunciation – it's “mahs-kar-POHN-ay” – and gave her the speech about respecting the language and the culture and all that stuff. And she didn't just stand there smiling indulgently; I think she actually got it. Of course, she may have gone back to the kitchen and laughed about the old nutball at the deuce by the window, but I prefer to think that she was instead passing on the lesson the distinguished Italian-ish gentlemen had taught her.
Anyway, drinks were ordered and served promptly. Aperitivo prides itself on its fine Italian wine selection, but a Limoncello Collins caught my wife's eye and I am partial to Birra Moretti, a rare find in most restaurants that was on the drink menu here.
The menu changes periodically and seasonally at Aperitivo. My wife chose the shrimp scampi and I opted for crostini alla Romana. Neither of us were disappointed. My wife pronounced the house-made pasta “outstanding.” I nicked a bite and agreed. The shrimp were delectably fresh and local and the garlicky, buttery sauce with just the right hint of lemon was perfection. The crostini were nicely toasted and topped with flavorful prosciutto di Parma and fresh mozzarella and drizzled with a rich sage butter. Our dolce of two mini-cannoli was a perfect conclusion to a perfect meal.
We so enjoyed Aperitivo that we returned the next night and partook of a hearty fettuccine Bolognese (her) and a wonderful ravioli in sage butter (me.) To finish, I stuck with the cannoli while she went over the moon with a decadent flourless chocolate cake. And again the service was impeccable.
In Italian traditional dining culture, an aperitivo is a pre-meal drink intended to stimulate the appetite. In recent years its meaning has expanded to encompass the act of going out for a pre-meal drink, and the Italian bars that cater to the trade generally serve a variety of light comestibles. It is this atmosphere that New Bern's Aperitivo attempts to emulate and it does so quite effectively. Bravo to Chef Ben and his staff.
The actual name of the place varies from an unwieldy Aperitivo at Lawson's Landing Cafe at the NC History Center to Aperitivo Wine Bar to simply Aperitivo. Until their advertising catches up, you might have to use any or all of them in order to find it. The restaurant(s) is/are located at 529 South Front Street in downtown New Bern. Dress is casual, parking is plentiful and reservations are accepted but not required. Hours of operation are from 5 to 9 on Thursday and from 5 to 11 on Friday and Saturday. Call them at (252) 637-9307 or check out the website at http://www.aperitivonewbern.com.
Aperitivo is a phenomenal place in a fabulous setting. But let's keep that our little secret, okay?